In the span of a decade and a half, East Williamsburg, a neighborhood in northwest Brooklyn, has gone from one of the borough’s most dangerous neighborhoods to a caricature of Brooklyn hip. Years of relentless development have turned the low-slung, heavily industrial area into a destination for Saturday night revelers and even young families looking to settle down. Local blogs warn of two new luxury hotels planned for the area, while a warehouse across from the Morgan Avenue subway station is being transformed into a “grittier Chelsea Market.” Groups of photo-snapping European tourists on graffiti tours are now ubiquitous, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton made the trek out to sample the pies at Roberta’s pizzeria.
The New York Loft Hostel, located on Varet Street just two blocks from the neighborhood’s subway station, fit in well with East Williamsburg’s new image. Equipped with a sun deck and bar, the building provided affordable accommodations to many of the neighborhood’s newfound tourists. But in August, locals learned through an article at Bushwick Daily and signs stuck to trees and storefronts that the hostel was closing and being converted into a 140-bed men’s homeless shelter.
Rumors began to spread through the bars and coffee shops that now pocket Bogart Street and Flushing Avenue. Whispers of safety concerns and lost business proliferated. Investors, homeowners, and business proprietors asked if the shelter would derail their efforts to transform the artsy, diverse area into a tourist haven and entertainment district. Some seemed sure that it would.
“The people who moved in there feel like pioneers,” Betty Cooney, executive director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District, said in a phone interview. “They pioneered the area from somewhere you wouldn’t want to even walk at night, and now it’s become really a special place.”
The shelter, Cooney said, “just brings down the area.”
The facility has pitted young gentrifiers and some older business owners who say they’ve shepherded the neighborhood through hard times against city officials who are under more pressure than ever to find places for the city’s 59,000 homeless men, women, and children to stay. Since taking office in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has leaned on the city’s decades-old practice of using hotels to house the homeless as it works to reform a sprawling, broken shelter system and address the lack of affordable housing for low-income residents. As officials try to mitigate the worst homelessness crisis the city has seen since the Great Depression by spreading shelters more equitably throughout the five boroughs, the question emerging in progressive areas like East Williamsburg is whether economic self-interest trumps a commitment to fairness.
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In 1979, in response to a case brought by the founders of the Coalition for the Homeless on behalf of a homeless Korean War veteran named Robert Callahan, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the city is legally required to provide a roof for any New Yorker in need of one.
Ensuring the right to shelter mandated by Callahan v. Carey has become a Sisyphean task for city officials in recent years. Over the last two decades, the loss of 400,000 affordable-housing units, skyrocketing rents, and stagnant wages have resulted in a 150 percent increase in the number of homeless New Yorkers. Between the beginning of the Bloomberg administration in 2002 and the de Blasio administration in 2014, the homeless population swelled from 31,000 to 53,000. It has continued to soar since.
The effects of this crisis have not been felt equally across the city, which has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the United States. When de Blasio took office, some 80 percent of New York City’s homeless shelters were concentrated in four sectors: Upper Manhattan, Southeast Queens, Central Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. All of these areas were home to predominantly low-income, majority-minority communities.
“Over time, through multiple city administrations, siting frequently didn’t take into account the important perspective that this is a citywide problem,” said Steven Banks, who serves in a dual role as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration (HRA) and head of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). “As we’re proceeding, we’re attempting to balance both clients’ desire to remain in their communities and equity across the city.”
The de Blasio administration has unrolled an ambitious $3 billion effort to fight homelessness by boosting social-service support and providing 15,000 additional new units of housing. Taking a preventive approach, HRA has increased funding devoted to anti-eviction legal services from $6 to $62 million and set aside additional funding to pay back rent for families facing eviction. The city is also attempting by 2019 to phase out the much-criticized “cluster sites”—individual blocks of apartments and entire buildings the city rents from private landlords to house the homeless.
The use of cluster housing, which began at the end of Rudy Giuliani’s administration, accelerated under Bloomberg. The city paid up to three times market rent for the units, which were often poorly maintained by delinquent landlords. Residents complained of rodent infestations and fire-safety violations.
To address these dangerous, substandard conditions, cluster units are now being converted back into permanent housing where homeless families can be placed. While the construction is underway, DHS officials are relying on a decades-old alternative: converting hotels into shelters and renting commercial hotel rooms to homeless New Yorkers for days or weeks at a time.
The latter is a “bridge that’s helping us address the need to shelter people on a night-to-night basis and phase out the cluster shelters,” Commissioner Banks said.
With a glut of hotels opening up in Brooklyn and Queens, neighborhoods that had few or no homeless shelters or seemed unlikely locations for new ones began to see an influx of homeless residents. In May, locals learned that a Brooklyn-themed boutique hotel on Beaver Street, on the Bushwick-Williamsburg border, was being used as temporary housing for the homeless. The city was renting a block of rooms, which ran between $139 and $189 a night for ordinary guests. Assemblywoman Maritza Davila, who represents the area, said she was never told that BKLYN House was selected for use by the DHS.
After learning of their presence from concerned residents, Davila urged the city to relocate the 78 homeless men who had been staying there. Days after officials agreed, she got a call from the mayor’s office informing her that the hostel on nearby Varet Street would be converted into a permanent shelter.
“It was done,” Davila said in an interview at her office. “I was furious. Furious. We just went through this. There was no transparency—complete disrespect for the community.”
For Davila and others, the construction of another site in their neighborhood, which already has five shelters, was a step too far.
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On the second Tuesday in August, some 90 people gathered in the back room of Green Fitness Studio, a gym directly across from the site of the new shelter. Parents with young children, 20-something hipster types, and a small number of Orthodox Jews and middle-aged minority residents sat on white folding chairs in front of a pull-down painting of a Swiss mountainscape. The thwacking sound of boxers practicing in the ring behind them echoed through the crowded space. At the front of the room, representatives from the city, the Department of Homeless Services, and the shelter operator, Project Renewal, made their pitch.
“We wish we didn’t have to be here tonight,” de Blasio policy adviser Lincoln Restler said at the start of the meeting, before launching into the city’s moral and legal obligation to house the homeless.
Urging residents to have “compassion” towards disadvantaged New Yorkers, Restler explained that the Varet Street shelter would provide a full range of vocational and medical services to the 140 men ages 55 years and older who would be housed there for generally nine-month stretches. A 10-person private security team would keep tabs on residents and patrol the surrounding streets, with assistance from a security-camera system and oversight from the local police precinct. No sex offenders would be housed there and no methadone would be administered at the site. A 10 pm curfew would be strictly enforced.
No matter what residents said, the Restler informed them, the site would open September 1.
As soon as the floor opened to questions, the simmering tension in the room erupted.
“The country club you’re opening across the street sounds really nice,” one older white man said, calling city officials “barbaric” for placing the shelter in “the heart of our community.”
“How will we know that conditions will be safe, especially for female students and staff?” asked the parents’ representative for Williamsburg Charter High School, located just down the street.
“What about local businesses?” a furious French man asked. “For you to spring this on us and expect us to be silent is just so unacceptable,” he later added.
Around 80 percent of the audience seemed adamantly opposed to the shelter, with a vocal minority yelling at them to have sympathy. Over the course of two hours, residents raised concerns about the facility’s discouraging future investment, the loss of business from hostel guests, and how the homeless men would spend their days. They would sexually harass young women walking by, some cautioned, use the street as their bathroom, wander around aimlessly, drink and smoke on the corners. Why in our neighborhood and why now, they asked again and again.
“If communities in the city of New York were allowed to determine where shelters would go, no communities would say here,” Restler said.
A “not in my back yard” attitude is a trademark of city-dwellers, and a more exaggerated residential drama is currently at play in nearby Maspeth, Queens, where locals are passionately fighting the city’s move to install the neighborhood’s first homeless shelter in a converted Holiday Inn Express. But the zip code where the hotel will be located is over 70 percent white, and did not elect its first Democratic City Council representative until 2008. East Williamsburg, which spills into Bushwick, is a deep-blue, diverse district with a majority Latino population, many of whom are foreign-born. Some residents expressed surprise that their seemingly progressive neighbors so vocally opposed the shelter.
Douglas McKinnon, a board member of the Seigel Street Townhouse Homeowners Association who has lived in the area since 1990, said he was disappointed by what he heard in the meeting. Sitting on a bench in Justice Gilbert Ramirez park a few days later, he said that long-term residents, many of whom were minorities, put in work to improve the neighborhood and make it appealing for the new business that have opened there.
“I listened and I looked around at the faces and I started to get angry,” McKinnon, who is black and came to the United States to join his family from Guyana in the 1970s, said. “I listened to the context of their statements and they’re talking about how they came and they put down roots and they’ve been here for five or nine or 14 years and now this is going to impact their business. What I was trying to say to them was that your business is going to be okay.”
McKinnon said that the opponents of the shelter seemed to predominantly be newer—and whiter—residents and business owners. As someone who lived in the area when pimps used to knock out the lights in the park to keep prostitutes out of view of passing police cars, he said, he didn’t believe that one shelter would endanger the rapid-fire development of the neighborhood.
Others, like Betty Cooney, said that their opposition to the shelter is in no way a “racial issue.”
“People worked hard to build up the community,” Cooney, who has run the business-improvement district for 14 years, said. “They move into an area because they have expectations. They look around and see what’s there and say, ‘This is nice. Let’s keep it nice.’ And the city just dropped a bomb.”
Councilman Antonio Reynoso, whose district covers Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Ridgewood (Queens), pointed out that the area already has a number of homeless shelters, including a 400-bed men’s facility run by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit group that operates residential work and training programs.
“I would ask anyone in the district to name those shelters and where they are,” Reynoso said in a phone interview. “I would be hard pressed to find one person who can do so, because they’re seamless.”
“There’s this idea that they’re all really dirty, they’re drinking all the time, they’re partying all the time, they’re urinating in the street,” he added. “There are almost 70,000 homeless people in our system. If that were the case, our city would be a disaster. It would be falling apart at the seams. But it’s not, because the majority of homeless people are just ordinary people who are down and out on their luck or circumstance and are trying to find their way back to normalcy.”
Rodney Stovall, who has lived at a shelter in Bedford Stuyvesant run by Samaritan Daytop Village for the past six months, hadn’t heard about the new facility opening on Varet Street. Walking out of the Bushwick branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on a Tuesday in mid-August, the 40-year-old, who wore a backpack and khakis, said he had heard from staff that “sometimes the community don’t want us.”
A bad divorce forced him to relocate from Georgia, leaving his ex-wife and two teenage children behind. He said he had started a class to get a commercial driver’s license before being cut from the city’s program, and suffers from depression because of the end of his marriage and uncertain living circumstances. He goes to the library most days to research job opportunities and has submitted several applications for maintenance and parks department positions.
“I just want to get out of this,” he said.
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Almost all of the opponents of the Varet Street shelter emphasized that they had compassion for the men who would be placed there, even if they didn’t have a sense of where an objection-free location would be. What bothered them most, they insisted, was the speed with which the facility would be established and the lack of warning they received.
“There was no notification for the people who lived on the block,” said Barry Borgen, owner of Green Fitness Studio and Avant Guards, a window guard and screen manufacturer. In his office above a labyrinthine shop floor, he explained why he felt compelled to organize the meeting with elected officials.
“We have no say. I think a community-board meeting is required. That’s what they are for,” he said, pointing to the meetings typically required before new bars, salons, or other businesses are granted permission to open.
“It’s just kind of a rug pull,” explained Alec Stephens III, manager of the Pine Box Rock Shop, a bar two blocks from the site.
This is not a new problem. Up through the start of de Blasio’s administration, the city would sometimes open shelters overnight, bringing homeless tenants to their new residence under cover of darkness. Anticipating community backlash, officials simply plowed ahead before residents had a chance to voice complaints.
Now, when a nonprofit like Project Renewal submits an application to build a shelter to the department’s open-ended request for proposal, it must also notify the community board and elected officials. No prior notice is given for emergency housing in commercial hotel rooms, however.
“We’re providing at least 30 days notice and in many cases 45,” DHS Commissioner Banks said. “In the case of the Varet Street shelter, it’s going to ultimately functionally be 60 days.”
“You want to be very transparent about these issues and give people a chance to voice concerns,” Project Renewal CEO Mitchell Netburn said in a phone interview. “But at the same time in this real-estate market things get bought and sold pretty quickly. It’s still quite hot outside but it’s going to start cooling off pretty soon. You want to make sure you can house everyone as the fall comes.”
While Reynoso said he was informed about the shelter around two months ago, the community board says they received no such notification. Asked when the city told them about the project, the board forwarded an e-mail inviting them to attend the August 9 meeting at Green Fitness studio.
“This is all we received!” they said.
Residents and bar owners spoke of a lack of trust. And without facts about the project, rumors spread. The facility would be a methadone clinic. Another hotel that had recently opened around the corner on Bogart Street would also be used as a shelter. The people urging compassion at the community meeting were plants brought in by the DHS. The Doe Fund site nearby already housed sex offenders (the city lost a fight to place 50 such residents at the facility last year).
The section of north Brooklyn once dubbed the “killing fields” still harbors understandable distrust towards the city for planting its factories, cement plants, and waste transfer stations in its backyard. Even after crime dropped citywide, boutiques replaced the artists’ lofts on newly tree-lined streets, and a new subway entrance opened on Bogart Street, the specter of crime hangs over the neighborhood. A homeless shelter in the midst of what is now the area’s central business district would be a huge step backwards, some feared.
Others pointed to the new plans for development as proof that the neighborhood would just keep growing, homeless shelter or not.
McKinnon, of the Seigel Street Townhouse Homeowners Association, said that what the neighborhood should worry about now is remaining a place where people from different economic backgrounds can live.
“The gate has been opened and the horses are gone,” he said of the place he has called home for 27 years.
“A place like Brooklyn where there’s a lack of space, it will grow. Growth you cannot stop. What you’ve got to understand is how to best accommodate everybody.”